Be employed and build a business too? Why not? says NTUC’s Desmond Choo

desmond choo


“We encourage our employees, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google,” wrote Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 2004. “This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.”

I shared the quote above with Desmond Choo, Director of NTUC’s Youth Development unit and asked what he thought.

“Google quite correctly understand the needs of younger workers: that they need space to grow and that they might know more than the management. These are the true knowledge generators and creators. You open up the space… you’re looking for ideas that will change the world.” says the labour MP.

How does that translate to a local context?

“We need to understand our employees. We may not be able to cater to all their needs but are we able to meet a common ground?” asks Choo. “For example, work arrangements: with technology many young workers are comfortable working on trains, working on phones…why do we still need to lock people in 9 to 5? We need a shift for work to become more outcome based. Recognise that employees are capable of multitasking, in-charge of their own lives, so that they’re more engaged. They can achieve goals and aspirations of their own as well as the company’s.”

In the case of Google, by 2009, half of all the tech giant’s products had had their origins from the 20 percent program. Two examples of Google’s products that resulted from the 20 percent of free time are Gmail and Google Suggest. This was a powerful collaboration and it is up to business owners in Singapore to capitalise on this and not see it as some new age Western liberal nonsense.

Google Drive

But what about if the employee was pursuing personal entrepreunal gains? What if an employee wants to build a business of his own, whilst being employed?

“If you’re an outcome based company, do you really care how an employee spends his time? Whatever you do in between, I say go ahead. There is also value in you cross-feeding ideas. One learns from his own ventures, and one can apply some of these during work. Why am I worried that an employee would do better in his own ventures than for my own companies? I think people should evolve from no-moonlighting clauses in employment contracts” he suggests.

desmond choo

(Image from Facebook page)

The soft spoken Desmond is also the proud father of a toddler, born in the later half of 2015. Whilst most babies wake their parents up in the middle of the night, his daughter is a little different. She sleeps throughout the night and it becomes hard to wake her up for feeding!

I asked Choo what he thought about the world would be when his daughter becomes of working age.

“There are a couple of things that will be quite different. The ability to be able to forecast over the longer term has become less useful. It has become harder to look beyond one to two cycles. Things change before we even realise it. Changes are going to happen a lot faster.”

“We will have so much information and we need to be able to synthesise this knowledge. This fundamentally changes the way we do work.”

“For example – from the information we have about an estate, we can change the way we go about administrating for cleanliness, repairs or even how much to bill you for utility consumption…we don’t need for someone to be present anymore. I could even price my electricity in such a way that you pay less during off peak hours. Technology will decease the need for manpower. More brains will be needed to do data analysis and at the same time using much better use of our infrastructure.”

And that leads us to this fact: labour requirements will evolve to become data/knowledge intensive and as well as skill intensive.

“Employees today outlast companies, compared to the past when companies outlast employees”, reminded Choo.

In short, the longevity of the job is no longer certain. Because of this, he wants employers to understand how important it is to involve younger employees.

Take for example: business processes. It shouldn’t be the case of ‘here’s the company SOPs, read it and obey it’.

“It is easy and comfortable commanding an order, but it may not be the best way to work. Rather, involve young workers to refine the SOPs for the company. This participation motivates them to learn the craft of your SOP in the first place and help you to progress the document from there!”

To involve an employee in corporate functions is corporate democracy and gives your company rules legitimacy.

“Many younger employers also hope to lend their bit to promote diversity in the company and promote greater cohesiveness. They are interested in the softer side of the company too. Can employees play roles in this? And thirdly the most critical is the communicative process – when employees understand, are engaged and then when you’re charged up and are given leeway to grow, you’ll find how unbelievable how long they’ll stay.”

Choo left us with this last bit of advice:

“Don’t just take employees for what they are – also help them achieve their best. If they feel that the employer treasures employees growth, they will also feel to contribute for you. It is not just about profit.”


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